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2015 November 17 - 03:41 pm

Workforce Shortage Faces Ky.’s New Governor

State’s Technical, Community Colleges Criticized for Workforce Gaps

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Darrell Littrell has 50 jobs at his tool and die shop in Henderson County, and he’s willing to pay up to $100,000 a year for each of them. But he can’t find anyone who can do the work.

“People that are qualified in our industry are just nonexistent anymore,” Littrell said.

As Kentucky emerges from the effects of the national recession, employers across the state trying to take advantage of the new economic growth confront a shortage of qualified workers. The problem is maddening for state officials, who desperately want to replace the jobs lost in Kentucky’s coal industry, devastating the eastern part of the state.

Matt Bevin, the state’s Republican governor-elect, has blamed the problem on drug addiction and Kentucky’s system of community and technical colleges, which they say are not in tune with the needs of their local employers.

Bevin said the state’s workforce “doesn’t have the training and the skills.”

“The crisis that exists is so many of these people frankly can’t even pass a drug test,” he said.

Economists say Kentucky’s improving economy, its demographics and its dependence on federal benefits have shrunk the state’s workforce. Average weekly earnings in Kentucky have grown 4.8 percent this year, twice as fast as the national average.

“There is a marked shift in power between employers and job-seekers,” said Manoj Shanker, an economist with the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet. “Businesses become price takers. That’s economist-speak for saying employers are losing their influence on wages, because the labor market is getting stretched and job-seekers can demand higher wages.”

While Kentucky’s unemployment rate has fallen to 5 percent, its lowest rate in 15 years, a big reason for that is the state’s shrinking labor force. Nationally, 3.1 percent of the labor force receives Social Security disability benefits. In Kentucky, it’s 6.5 percent, further diluting the state’s pool of workers. And nearly 15 percent of Kentucky’s population is aged 65 and older, higher than the national average.

“The age of the automotive business in Kentucky is about 30, 35 years ... That’s about the average span of a career path in the automotive business,” said Dave Tatman, executive director of the Kentucky Auto Industry Association and the former general manager of the Corvette Assembly Plant in Bowling Green. “That means there (are) thousands of positions coming available in the automotive industry and manufacturing in the commonwealth, and we don’t have a pipeline (of workers).”

Kentucky is trying. The state spends nearly $900 million each year of state and federal money on workforce training programs. Yet in a survey of employers by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, just 8 percent said the state’s workforce had “good skills.” The chamber has called on the next governor to launch a comprehensive review of the state’s workforce training programs.

Middle-skilled jobs, which require education beyond high school but short of a four-year college degree, make up 58 percent of the state’s labor market. But just 48 percent of Kentucky workers have the training necessary to do those jobs, according to the National Skills Coalition.

“It doesn’t have to be four-year degrees,” Bevin said. “Let’s have more vocational training.”

Littrell said he could use the help. His business is growing, but he said most of the new jobs he has are going to China.

“I definitely want to get those jobs here to the U.S. as well,” he said.

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